The Legal Hurdles of Adapting A Novel or Book

Here’s a question I recently received from a student:

The Question:

Given that I have very few connections to the industry, how would you best recommend moving forward if I have a novel in mind I’d like to adapt? Is it necessary to have a literary agent? Is it best to go through the publishers to find out about the rights? What would help me to get my foot in the door?

My Answer:

Most likely, novels by major authors will have already been snapped up by people with much deeper pockets than you have. However, older or lesser known novels and non-fiction books by less famous authors may very well be available. And some very old novels even exist in the public domain, which means you can use them without optioning anything!

Contacting The Subsidiary Rights Department

The way to start is by contacting the Subsidiary Rights Department at the book or novel’s publisher. You can usually find the contact information for the Subsidiary Rights Department down in the fine print at the bottom the publisher’s website, or by calling the publisher directly.

Break Out Your 1990′s Technology

Believe it or not, many Subsidiary Rights Departments still require contact via fax, so unless your publisher accepts email requests, go ahead and crank back the calendar to 1994, break out your old fax machine, and get ready to rock.

The fax (or email) you send should include the following:

Your Name

Your Company Name (if Applicable)

Your Address

Your Fax Number

Title of The Novel

Author’s Name

Publisher

Publication Date

ISBN Number

A Request To Know Who Controls The Film Rights For The Novel

A Blank Space For Them To Write That Person Or Company’s Contact Info

Make sure your return fax number is printed clearly on the form, so they know who to send it back to!

Contacting The Rights Holder

Once you have the name of the person, company, or agent that controls the film rights, you can go ahead and reach out to them (usually by phone or email) about optioning the novel or book.

What The Heck is An Option?

Essentially an option is a legal agreement that gives you the right to buy or sell the film rights for a book or novel at an agreed upon price. Most options last for a year, and give you an option to extend for a second year for a fixed additional payment. Depending on the perceived value of the book or novel you’re optioning, an option can cost a fortune, or as little as a dollar.

The option is the thing that gives you the right to actually SELL the screenplay you write based on somebody else’s book or novel.

It’s not your job to know the ins and outs of options. When the time comes, you will hire a lawyer to walk you through the option agreement. For right now, just concentrate on contacting the rights holder, finding out if the film rights are available, and asking if he or she would be willing to work out a “free” (technically $1) or inexpensive option with you so that you can adapt the book or novel into screenplay form.

Your Pitch

If you’re like most writers, you probably don’t have a ton of money to spend on an option. If the novel’s been sitting on the shelf for years, the rights holder may simply be delighted to know that someone is interested. But the chances are, you’re going to have to do a little bit of selling of yourself in order to convince the rights holder that it’s in their best interest to put their project in your hands.

So that means before you pick up the phone, you want to have a clear take on the material, and an exciting pitch for how you’d transform it into a marketable screenplay, and maybe some ideas for big stars who could play the lead role once your screenplay is finished, and how your version of the adaptation would be perfect for those actors.

Remember, You Are Bringing Real Value To The Project

Generally, if the film rights for a book or novel are still available, it means the rights holder has already done everything in their power to sell the project as a film and failed. That means your script could give them a second chance to show someone how this story really could make a great movie and turn it from another project sitting in their files into a hot commodity that can bring them lots of money.

If you’re going to risk a year of your life writing that script for them with no upfront compensation, it’s reasonable to expect them to give you a year long option and the rights to extend for a second year for a reasonable amount of money.

What If They Want You To “Audition”

If the rights holder asks you for a short treatment or a writing sample, it’s probably worth your while go ahead and send it. But don’t under any circumstances start writing a screenplay until you legally control the option on the material.

I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve known who have “auditioned” by writing a script with the hopes that a rights holder would like it, only to have the rights holder sell the book or novel out from under them- often for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the script.

Why You Need A Lawyer

Remember that you only control the rights as long as you control the option, which means that once the option expires, you can’t sell your script without the author’s approval. That means you want a real entertainment lawyer to draw up your option agreement for you (even if you’re optioning the story for a dollar).

Think about the time you’re going to invest in this project. Do you really want to stake everything on an option agreement you pulled off the internet? You need an expert to protect your investment, and make sure you can do something with it when it’s finished.

Public Domain Books And Novels

As you can tell, when rights holders are involved, optioning a book or novel can be a challenging process for a young writer. However, if the book you’re interested in adapting was published in the United States prior to 1923, most likely you don’t have to go through ANY of this! Because most likely that book is in the public domain.

For this reason, if you’re interested in adaptation, one of the best places to start is with old books that you can use as you like without any option agreement.

The rules of public domain can be complex, so make sure to double check that the book is in the public domain before you start writing.

Writing Your Adaptation

Of course, optioning the book or novel, or discovering the public domain book you want to adapt is just the beginning. The process of making your adaptation is an art in itself.

Legal Disclaimer: I am a screenwriter and not a lawyer. Though I hope that this information will be useful to you, please be aware that no part of this article should be considered legal advice. For such advice please consult an entertainment attorney.